Day 25: Orwell’s “Reflections on Gandhi”

If I ruled the world, I’d have every person who aspires to be a writer, politician or any kind of thought leader  read this essay at least once a year. It should be posted on the walls of all newsrooms and magazine offices. In this piece, Orwell models clarity, honesty, and humility while performing what for many is an impossible task: He takes the measure of a man who in many ways is his polar opposite and gives this complicated man his due. Rather than begin with some cheap political agenda that must be served, Orwell sets out to evaluate Gandhi in his own terms.

Here you find none of the thundering, blustering certainty that makes most political discourse today unbearable; instead, you see a great writer trying to follow the truth wherever it seems to lead. Key quote:

His character was an extraordinarily mixed one, but there 
was almost nothing in it that you can put your finger on and call bad, 
and I believe that even Gandhi’s worst enemies would admit that he was an 
interesting and unusual man who enriched the world simply by being alive. 
Whether he was also a lovable man, and whether his teachings can have 
much for those who do not accept the religious beliefs on which they are 
founded, I have never felt fully certain. 

The full text of this great essay is here.

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Day 22: “Actors in the Same Tragedy”

One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent Death. Very brief is the time in which we can help them, in which their happiness or misery is decided. Be it ours to shed sunshine on their path, to lighten their sorrows by the balm of sympathy, to give them the pure joy of a never-tiring affection, to strengthen failing courage, to instil faith in hours of despair. Let us not weigh in grudging scales their merits and demerits, but let us think only of their need — of the sorrows, the difficulties, perhaps the blindnesses, that make the misery of their lives; let us remember that they are fellow-sufferers in the same darkness, actors in the same tragedy with ourselves. And so, when their day is over, when their good and their evil have become eternal by the immortality of the past, be it ours to feel that, where they suffered, where they failed, no deed of ours was the cause; but wherever a spark of the divine fire kindled in their hearts, we were ready with encouragement, with sympathy, with brave words in which high courage glowed.

Bertrand Russell, from “A Free Man’s Worship”

Day 21: “Toward the Winter Solstice”

Here’s a nice poem for the shortest day of the year.

Toward the Winter Solstice
                                                       by Timothy Steele
Although the roof is just a story high,
It dizzies me a little to look down.
I lariat-twirl the cord of Christmas lights
And cast it to the weeping birch’s crown;
A dowel into which I’ve screwed a hook
Enables me to reach, lift, drape, and twine
The cord among the boughs so that the bulbs
Will accent the tree’s elegant design.

Friends, passing home from work or shopping, pause
And call up commendations or critiques.
I make adjustments. Though a potpourri
Of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and Sikhs,
We all are conscious of the time of year;
We all enjoy its colorful displays
And keep some festival that mitigates
The dwindling warmth and compass of the days.

Some say that L.A. doesn’t suit the Yule,
But UPS vans now like magi make
Their present-laden rounds, while fallen leaves
Are gaily resurrected in their wake;
The desert lifts a full moon from the east
And issues a dry Santa Ana breeze,
And valets at chic restaurants will soon
Be tending flocks of cars and SUVs.

And as the neighborhoods sink into dusk
The fan palms scattered all across town stand
More calmly prominent, and this place seems
A vast oasis in the Holy Land.
This house might be a caravansary,
The tree a kind of cordial fountainhead
Of welcome, looped and decked with necklaces
And ceintures of green, yellow, blue, and red.

Some wonder if the star of Bethlehem
Occurred when Jupiter and Saturn crossed;
It’s comforting to look up from this roof
And feel that, while all changes, nothing’s lost,
To recollect that in antiquity
The winter solstice fell in Capricorn
And that, in the Orion Nebula,
From swirling gas, new stars are being born.

Day 20: Mark Twain on Mankind

The 31 Days of Cheer continue with one of the great American satirists: Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain. I’ve seen this superb show three times, going back to the 70s, and we’ve got tickets to see it again next month. Holbrook jokes that when he first started doing Twain almost 50 years ago, it took several hours to do the makeup and hair. Now, at 82,  he’s ready in about half an hour.

Here’s a good segment from one of HH’s many shows. In this one, Twain mocks man as “the reasoning animal” and “the religious animal.”